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Hollywood Canteen
Real characters and fictitious characters mingle at the Hollywood Canteen






"You see somebody on the screen and then you see him in the flesh and it kind of... gets you!"
--Sgt. Slim Green at the Hollywood Canteen

Hollywood Canteen

1944.Warners. Directed & Written by Delmer Daves. With Robert Hutton, Dane Clark, Joan Leslie, Bette Davis, John Garfield, and many guest stars

"I used to think Hollywood was a place of false fronts!" marvels an on-leave soldier. "Nothing false about what we saw tonight!"

He and his buddy have just been love-bombed by dozens of twinkly-eyed stars in aprons at the famous Hollywood Canteen. The whole Warner's lot seems to have turned out to cook for, dance with, and matchmake for young soldiers. They exhibit that USO-show false modesty--"We're just entertainers; it's you fellows who deserve the applause"--but their noblesse oblige shows through every time a GI gulps, "'re Paul Henried!"

Our hero, Sgt. Slim Green, happens to be the millionth man to enter the Canteen. He wins a night on the town in Hollywood, including "any actress in town as your date." He chooses. . . Joan Leslie! She must have been the starlet Warners was interested in promoting that month, and perhaps the only one willing to put up with the invasion of privacy that this movie represents.

For over the course of the film, Slim and Joan fall in love. This is Slim Green, a fictional character played by Robert Hutton, in love with Joan Leslie, actual Warners contract player and frequent Canteen volunteer. Can two different levels of reality successfully mate?

Slim goes home with Joan and meets her folks. Did Joan Leslie really have a sister Betty? Is that her? Mom and Dad are certainly actors (they are too comfortable in front of the camera to be amateurs) and the house—a generic small-town, front-porch swing kind of cottage—is pretty clearly not where Joan Leslie spent her Hollywood years. Anyone who thought about it would realize that this isn't Joan Leslie's real life. But having her appear under her own name, instead of as, say, fictitious starlet "Judy Harris," makes the whole thing strangely tantalizing. You wonder if, when Leslie showed up for work on her next picture, anybody asked "Heard from Slim?"

If it seems surprising that Leslie would let herself—her name, her romantic life—be exploited in this way, you have to ask yourself to what extent "Joan Leslie" is a real person anyway. The name is phoney (adopted by Joan Brodel of Detroit), and the persona probably is too. Is this movie any more an imposition than studio-arranged romances, "at-home" photo features in Life magazine, PR-department releases about a star's hobbies, childhood, etc? In a sense, Joan is going only marginally farther than the other people who appear "as themselves" in Hollywood Canteen. they are all playing parts. The "Bette Davis" on display here is no less a fictional character than "Joan Leslie" or "Sgt. Slim Green."

Bette Davis, Joan Leslie, and actor Hutton are all listed alphabetically in the credits, with no distinction made between those who are "appearing" and those who are "performing." Everyone is shot with similar glamour lighting. Everyone had lines to learn. Even those who use their own names are, in a sense, playing characters.

Performances on all levels get mixed up. People like Joe E. Brown and Maxene Andrews switch almost instantaneously from chatting with the fellows to doing a number. They are so "on" in casual conversation that it's hard to tell the difference. The dialog makes frequent references to the confusion in lines like: "Holy Cow! You're Mrs. Skeffington --I mean, Bette Davis!" Slim tells Barbara Stanwyck that he loved her best until he saw his first Joan Leslie movie, and Barbara asks with amusement, "So I can tell my husband it's all over between us?"

The beginning of the film sets up the whole deranged mess: Slim has a girl back home, but he thinks he likes Joan Leslie better (both girls are redheads, he points out, though how he knows the color of Joan's hair is beyond me). That very night a Joan Leslie movie is shown at base, and this tips the scales: "She's the one--not that girl in Altoona!" "A happy choice!" the chaplain approves. A crush on a movie star better than a real relationship? This movie maintains that if you happen by the Hollywood Canteen, you can have both at the same time.

This movie captures Hollywood at its most self-satisfied. The movie community here is just a jolly, egalitarian club. Self-deprecation, charm, and tireless service are its guiding principles. There is a chance to see some good numbers--the Sons of the Pioneers sing; Jack Benny banters and plays a duet with Josef Szigeti; the Broadway dancer Joan McCracken does a sort of Oklahoma ripoff ballet. But certainly the best acts of all involve the likes of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford presenting themselves as generous, down-to-earth family women.



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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein